Sahagún by Bike

Latin American history has been an obsession of mine since a study abroad to Ecuador in 1993. That trip put me on the path

Image from Wikicommons.

Image from Wikicommons.

that ultimately led to my PhD. My original passion, though, dating to the first time my parents showed me Breaking Away, and the years that ABC and CBS sports showed Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France in the glory days of Greg Lemond, was bike racing. I’ve never had enough of the particular talents necessary to excel at bike racing, certainly not to the point of needing the medical preparations so dear to the professional peloton’s heart these days, but I can’t seem to stop following the sport and turning the occasional pedal in anger. In fact, when I went to Quito for my dissertation research I brought along a bike, and trained most days in the morning or evening, braving the ridiculous traffic and lung-busting climbs (sometimes cobbled) that marked every possible route. Well, every route with the exception of riding on the velodrome. I even entered a couple of races– but it was so ridiculously dangerous and scary (and the riders there are so small they go up hill faster than I ever could) that I decided discretion was the better part of valor.

The Iglesia de Sahagún. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Iglesia de Sahagún. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are the occasional moments where my two passions converge. Today’s third stage of the Vuelta de Castilla y León, won by Alejandro Valverde, headed out this morning from the town of Sahagún, bound for the San Isidro Ski Station some 160km away. I of course took note of the departure town today because it was the birthplace in 1499 of Bernardino de Sahagún, the friar responsible for several of our more significant sources on the conquest and its impact on Nahuatl society in central Mexico. Most famously, Sahagún was the compiler of the manuscript now known as the Florentine Codex. (By the way, the Florentine Codex is available in English translation, along with a number of other Mesoamerican codices, from Amazon.)

Early Latin Americanists owe a great deal to Sahagún who operated, essentially, as an ethnographer of Nahuatl culture even as the cataclysm of the immediate post-conquest and, more devastatingly, pandemic disease were ravaging the central valley. As was often the case with modern anthropology, the really very important knowledge preserved by Sahagún’s endeavors, in conjunction with and completely dependent on native informants, was the result of an imperial and religious compulsion to power through knowledge. So, there is a certain irony that this work is so important in our ability to understand the dynamic of conquest, and particularly the dynamic of native participation in and understanding of the process.

I’m currently spending the semester on leave in Albuquerque, NM and with the time change, I’m able to get in the occasional ride in the middle Rio Grande Valley. The thing about the bike is it takes me to places, and via paths I would never visit in a car, including the many landmark names of the Spanish period in NM that once formed nucleated settlements now subsumed in suburban growth. It is, though, easier to imagine their past, exposed to the elements and vulnerable to the whims of modernity’s urban beast- the automobile- than it ever is cloistered in those hurtling hunks of steel. Bikes and history are maybe more complementary passions that I’ve thought all these years.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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3 comments on “Sahagún by Bike
  1. Chad,
    Una visita a Sahagún puede efectivamente ser muy ilustrativa para comprender la forma de ver el mundo de fray Bernardino. Hace unos meses estuve allí (recurriendo a mi particular actividad preferida, que es poner incesantemente un pie delante del otro) para descubrir que la villa tiene una plaza principal muy modesta, casi escondida entre callejuelas. El centro, dominante y absorbente, fue siempre la gran abadía benedictina.

  2. parezcoydigo says:

    Felipe- gracias por el comentario. Hay algunas cosas sobre la realidad Sahagún que contribuiría explicar la realidad del Don Bernardino, no? Es uno de los fuentes originales del tipo arquitectoral “Mudéjar” y también un tambo, como se dice en los Andes, por la Via Santiago. Pues, me parece que el sentido religioso, pero marcado por una cultura mezclada producía un terreno fecundo para el típo del trabajo del fray.

  3. Benito says:

    Ha, and I was just thinking the other day. No seriously, I was. I was on my bike, which is still the place I do some of my best thinking. Any way, I was thinking that somehow there had to be a way to link cycling to studies in Latin American and Spanish culture (and history and literature) in more than the obvious race related topics. I’ve been collecting ideas on a notebook for the spring 2010 course in which I hope to integrate cycling (and some of your notes, if I may) into the advanced composition and conversation course I’ll teach then. Say hello to all in ABQ!

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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